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United States v. Crawford, No. 12-4531

Decided:  November 1, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the defendant’s sentence for drug distribution. The Court held that the district court’s use of multiple hearsay evidence to calculate the defendant’s drug quantity did not render his sentence unreasonable.

On November 21, 2011, defendant Crawford (“Crawford”) plead guilty to distribution of 38.3 grams of crack cocaine without the benefit of a plea agreement. At sentencing, Crawford objected to the presentence report’s (PSR) drug quantity calculation, which found him responsible for 408.1 grams of crack cocaine from 2003 to 2011. Crawford argued that information that two paid informants- Veronica Ready and Melanie Latta- supplied via telephone interviews to Chad Nesbitt, an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who did not testify at Crawford’s sentencing hearing, was not sufficiently reliable.  At Crawford’s sentencing hearing, Brunswick County Sherriff’s Office Deputy Jeffrey Beck testified regarding Latta and Ready. The informants worked with law enforcement for money and to reduce their crack cocaine charges; however, neither had provided false information in the past. Crawford alleged that his drug sentence was procedurally unreasonable because the district court utilized unreliable multiple hearsay evidence.

The Fourth Circuit evaluated the district court’s sentence under an abuse-of-discretion standard. Sentences must be both procedurally and substantively reasonable. Pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines, where there is no drug seizure or the amount seized does not reflect the scale of the offense, the court shall approximate the quantity of the controlled substance. However, when the approximation is based only upon uncertain witness estimates, the Court instructed that district courts should sentence at the low end of the range to which the witness testified, which the district court did in this case. When determining facts relevant to sentencing, such as an approximated drug quantity, the Fourth Circuit explained that the Sentencing Guidelines allow courts to “consider relevant information without regard to its admissibility under the rules of evidence applicable at trial, provided that the information has sufficient indicia of reliability to support its probable accuracy.” Accordingly, for sentencing purposes, hearsay alone can provide sufficiently reliable evidence of drug quantity.

However, Crawford made three primary arguments that Beck’s recounting of Nesbitt’s interviews with Latta and Ready was not reliable evidence of drug quantity. First, Crawford argued that the evidence simply established that Crawford dealt drugs, not the quantity of drugs that the court attributed to him. However, the court did not dwell on Crawford’s relationship with Latta to establish that he was a drug dealer; it did so because this relationship showed that Latta had first-hand knowledge of the drug quantity attributable to Crawford and, therefore, provided information regarding drug quantity. Second, Crawford argued that the telephone was an inherently unreliable form of communication, which the court also rejected. Third, Crawford argued that the informants’ statements were unreliable because they are drug users who cooperated with law enforcement officials to reduce pending felony charges. However, the Court explained that while these factors may affect a witness’s credibility, they do not render a witness per se unreliable. Finally, the Court held that the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause does not apply at sentencing hearings.

Full Opinion

– Sarah Bishop